Going Grade-less

Under gentler rating system, schools will no longer be ranked or graded

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Chancellor Fariña speaking at P.S. 503, whose principal Bernadette Fitzgerald will lead one of the Brooklyn field support centers.

The city has revamped the way it rates schools, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday, transforming school report cards into something more like online reviews.

Schools will no longer receive annual progress reports that rank them and give them A-to-F letter grades, which Fariña and many educators have condemned as blunt and unreliable. Instead, beginning this fall, the city will produce separate guides for educators and families about every school that highlight the results of surveys and classroom observations alongside students’ test scores and course grades.

The new evaluations reflect the school system’s sharp swerve under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña away from a philosophy of competition and consequences as the drivers of change, to one where school improvement is seen as the fruit of cooperation and support. In fact, Fariña did not say Wednesday whether low-performing schools would face any repercussions or interventions — a point that critics seized on — only saying that they would be given customized support.

“This is a totally new approach,” Fariña said during a speech at P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

Since 2006, the city has issued schools annual progress reports with overall A-to-F grades and percentile rankings. While the education department has added a greater variety of data to the reports over time, students’ state test scores have until now largely determined the grades that elementary and middle schools receive. (High schools’ grades factor in graduation rates, how quickly students earn credits, and how well students are prepared for college.)

Because low-rated schools could face sanctions and declining enrollment, critics said the grades spurred some principals to manipulate data and teachers to center their classes around test preparation. Meanwhile, because schools were compared to their peers, sometimes schools with scores above the city average still earned low grades on the reports.

“I don’t think that they were an accurate or fair representation in a lot of instances,” said Dionne Grayman, co-founder of the public-school parent advocacy group, NYCpublic.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration "misled hundreds of thousands of parents."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration “misled hundreds of thousands of parents.”

More description than assessment, the new guides are meant to give parents a fuller picture of schools and help educators take stock of what’s working and what needs to be fixed without feeling judged, officials said. They repackage many of the same metrics that the previous administration used to measure schools, but they avoid giving them final ratings — which under the Bloomberg administration could lead to sanctions and even closure if schools earned low grades.

Now, the city will create a shorter “quality snapshot” for families and a “quality guide” for staffers or those who want more data. Neither features an overall school rating.

The snapshots include student test scores, graduation rates, and some survey data, as the progress reports did, but add ratings of the quality of teaching and curriculum in schools that are based on formal school observations.

The 16-to-18-page guides describe schools’ student populations, give excerpts from the formal review findings, and provide detailed data about how well students performed on tests and schoolwork, similar to the progress reports. But instead of giving schools letter grades based on student performance, the guides say whether schools are “not meeting,” “approaching,” “meeting,” or “exceeding” a target score that the city will calculate for each school.

Sean Corcoran, an education economics professor at New York University who consulted department officials this year as they redesigned the evaluations, said the new guides feature much of the same information as the older progress reports. But by removing the overall ratings, the new guides will force readers to look more closely at data they may have glanced over before, he added.

“These reports do a good job of making families and schools look a little deeper than just a letter grade,” he said.

But the lack of letter grades also could present a new burden for families sorting through dozens of school guides during the admissions process. School officials acknowledged that on Wednesday, saying the department would have to train parents to read the new guides.

The evaluations put new emphasis on the results of the annual surveys that students, parents, and educators take, as well as the findings of the formal school observations. Fariña said she would improve those tools by making sure they measure certain characteristics of good schools, such as strong leadership and close ties with families. Officials also said they would conduct more school observations this year, though more than a quarter of schools will not be visited.

While the surveys and observations might catch qualities of a school that test scores miss, they are also susceptible to tampering, some educators said. Geraldine Maione, the former principal of William Grady Career & Technical High School, said she knew of schools that gave students and parents food while they took the survey as a way to boost the results. Because the school review visits are announced ahead of time, they often amount to “dog and pony shows,” she added.

A former department official who helped design the original progress reports said that some metrics on the new quality snapshots, such as “How interesting and challenging is the curriculum?” are “impossible to measure consistently.”

“There’s no additional sunlight there,” the official said, “just the replacement of a scale that seems too harsh to some with language that seems mushier to others.”

Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including "When You Wish Upon A Star."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

Fariña also said very little about how the department will use the new evaluations, particularly when they show that schools are struggling.

In the past, schools that earned consecutive low grades were given improvement plans and could eventually face closure. The new administration has made clear that closure will now be used only as a last resort, but Fariña did not describe on Wednesday what sort of interventions the city will take for schools found to be low performing. Officials said in a briefing after her speech that they are still discussing how to use the new evaluations to design supports for schools, but they “anticipate talking more about that in January.”

Groups that supported the previous administration and have been critical of Fariña called her speech a disappointment and said it failed to address head-on the city’s many struggling schools. Even people who praised the new evaluations said it was troubling that the city did not say how it will use the ratings to prop up low-performing schools.

Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said the evaluation shift represents an improvement from the previous administration’s “top-down approach to reform.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “it does not outline a real plan for what [this administration] intends to do with failing schools.”

Sarah Darville and Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.